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And Still Champion

Posted 2/24/2010

I read with great interest Andrea Appleton's piece on the efforts underway to memorialize Joe Gans, the Baltimore native who in 1902 became the first African-American to hold a professional boxing championship ("The Old Master," Feature, Feb. 17). In this year, 2010, the centennial of his death, the organizers of this effort are to be commended, as Gans is among our worthiest heroes. In the ring, he was an indomitable athlete. Beyond the ring, he was more--entrepreneurial, respectable, and independent--everything society said an African-American of his day could not be.

At the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, we offer an interpretation of Gans that considers him against the context of the turn of the 20th century, a time in which he and his African-American counterparts faced enormous obstacles to any measure of success. By the time he was crowned champion in 1902, for example, the state of Maryland had tried (without success) to take the vote from black men, categorically. In the year of his death, 1910, Baltimore City had racially segregated its neighborhoods, block by block. And, in the eight years between his championship and his death, white lynch mobs had murdered seven African-American Marylanders--including two in Annapolis, and another in Rosedale.

In our "Building Maryland, Building America" Gallery, Gans is larger than life. A 6-foot-high photo mural of the 5-foot-6 Gans has him in dapper businessman's attire, as he may have appeared while tending to the affairs of his Goldfield Hotel, or his other business ventures. An accompanying text panel discusses the breadth of his economic interests (including boxing). The image was taken from our only Joe Gans artifact, a postcard with his boxing legacy on the back, and this image on the front, labeled simply, "Joe Gans, Baltimore MD." From this, we gain a sense of Gans as a still-greater champion. With dignity and self-determination, he comes to us as a great man from an age desperate for heroes.

David Taft Terry
Executive director, Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture

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